Friday, September 27, 2013

Un-Blood Curdling Kurdistan

The little Turkish guy in the beat up minivan drove me about 50 m to a window where a bunch of people were trying to push their passports through a tiny hole, trying to get themselves and their families stamped out of Turkey.  One needs to be both patient and pushy in such situations.  It also doesn't hurt to be large.

That done, the driver then had to go past a number of other checkpoints, where he flashed his papers.  We were now out of Turkey, and 50 m later we were at Iraqi immigration.  Well, technically Iraqi.  For this would be the only Iraqi flag I would see in all of Kurdistan, and even here it was dwarfed by the Kurdish flag.

Then a couple more car paper checks and we were finally free and clear in Iraq, er, Kurdistan.  I had just gone through one of the poorer parts of Turkey; this was poorer still.  It kind of reminded me of a nondescript town/highway location in northern Mexico circa 1980.  As on the Turkish side, I would soon see untold hundreds of trucks in various stages of waiting around.

But for right now I had to find a share taxi to the first major city, Duhok.  Research had said that share taxis would be right at the border.  Taxis there were, but they were all owned by short, ugly young men, all jabbering away in Arabic about how they wanted $50.  I hadn't really been hassled on this trip so far, so I was in no mood for it.  Especially when they followed me around as I tried to walk away. 

After standing there for about 20 minutes trying to figure out what I was going to do, I had a piece of luck.  An Iraqi who lives in France also needed to go to Duhok.  Sometimes being a semi-polyglot comes in handy, and in French I learned that we could share a cab for $13 each.  Off we went.

Feeling as exotic as hell, we drove past the first Iraqi town of Zarko, and then down through some hills that looked a bit like tree dotted hills of Central California, but mostly like barren nondescript northern Mexico.  The road was four lane, but the worst rolling paving job ever.

I got left off in downtown Duhok on a late Sunday afternoon, with the nice French Iraqi guy helpfully pointing out money changers and hotels.  After a couple of tries I found a hotel which met minimal standards, for a cost of about $25.  It's interesting, but even basic hotels in the Third World these days seem to include a/c, satellite TV, wifi, and a refrigerator.  And hot water.  Hot damn.

I was in the bazaar area, although ancient souk it was not.  Still, if modern, it contained a myriad of interconnecting arched aisles, and on Sunday evening it was absolutely mobbed with customers.  Very Arabic vibe.  Of course, as in other such places, the vast majority of goods on offer were cheap ones, which is what the locals can afford and are looking for.

Myself, I was looking for food, and not finding much of anything.  I finally had to settle for some really bad street felafels.  Well, better than nothing, and also very Arabic.

After a good night's sleep, I was out next morning looking for a share taxi to Kurdistan's main city, Erbil.  Except for the jabbering annoyances at the border, I was finding the Iraqi Kurds to be pretty low key and nice.  Much quicker to laugh than the Turks.  And pretty much totally honest.  Money changers just sit on the streets with giant wads of money in front of them. 

For a share taxi, I just went into the office and told the man I wanted a 'single'.  I then sat in the room while enough customers showed up to fill a car.  Then we walked out to a cab and started out.  No over charging foreigners.  Everything straightforward.

Duhok is still in the dry hills.  But soon we descended down towards the flat Mesopotamian plains.  Kind of like the Central Valley in California if they didn't have irrigation.  Hardly inspiring, but then again, this was friggin' Iraq.  And as we curved around just to the north of Mosul, the police checkpoints just to the south of the road reminded me that just a few miles south I would be Dead Man Not Walking Very Far Before He's Dead.

But here on the Kurdish side you would never believe that war or danger was anywhere to be had.  There are many police checkpoints, but mostly you are just waved through.  And as we reached the outskirts of Erbil, there was plenty of simultaneous new construction going on.  These guys are going for it.

As I've already intimated, Kurdistan isn't exactly the most photogenic place in the world.  In fact, the whole place has exactly one tourist sight, the Citadel in Erbil.  It's an ancient city of around 50 acres that's raised about fifty feet above the plains around it.  Very photogenic.  And at it's foot, by Erbil's slightly more authentic old bazaar, is where the local taxi deposited me.

Finding a hotel here would be slightly more problematic.  The first one, recommended by the LP, had no elevator, and one horrible crappy room all the way at the top, with a filthy squat toilet.  All for $30.  Absolutely no one had ever heard of the other LP recommended one.  And all of the other bazaar hotels I could find were just about as funky

Almost despairing in the 95 degree heat, I turned a corner and there in front of me was a big, blue glass building with 'Lord City Hotel' plastered on it.  The rooms were small, but they were clean and had all of my minimal amenities.  And for $40.  I was saved.

After a suitable rest, I went out to explore my environs.  Besides the citadel on the hill and the bazaar, there was a small, pleasant park and a stone building with clock tower that looked like it had been left behind by the British.  Unfortunately, there was also a lot of traffic, and hordes of bustling people who weren't stopping to shake my hand.

I decided to ascend the citadel, and soon discovered that it may be a tourist sight, but it's hardly a tourist site.  First, you have to curve around the base until you get to the one access point.  Then up a long sloping road.  At the top there is only about a block that you can walk along, and all that surrounds you are broken down stone houses.  On the up side, it is a major restoration project of the Kurdish government, so that maybe in ten years or so...

As I got back to the road that sloped back down, I saw a lone woman who looked like she was an actual tourist.  She turned out to be a 40 year old Polish lady who traveled even more crazily than I.  On this trip she had first gone to Trabzon, Turkey, to get an Iranian visa.  Then, instead of just crossing into Iran, she had come down through Iraq in the hopes of crossing at an obscure border here.  The purpose of Iran?  To apply for that elusive Turkmenistan transit visa in Tehran, then wait two weeks, hopefully pick it up at Meshad, through the baking desert of Turkmenistan, then out at an extremely obscure Caspian Sea border post with Kazakhstan.

Well, she wanted to go to Sulaymeyah tomorrow.  I had been planning on Wednesday, but, really, by now I had 'done' Erbil, and that hotel room was mighty small.  So I decided to go with her.

The next morning we found some yogurt and bread for breakfast, and then took a taxi out to the long distance 'garage' for share taxis to Sulaymeyah.  Again, everything straightforward.  By now the roads were mostly four lane and mostly in decent shape.  The landscape, if anything, was drearier.  Although there was a fair bit of excitement when we reached Kirkuk.  Here we were on a freeway that actually cut through part of the city itself.  Again, a few miles south...

Sulaymeyah was a little smaller than Erbil, though they still claim that it's close to a million.  This time the recommended hotel turned out to be tatty, but okay.  It was next to the city's big mosque, and next to the city's tatty, but okay bazaar/shopping area. 

The city's only real 'attraction' is the Saddam Hussein terror museum.  So we took off for it, walking through said old school shopping area, then through Suly's more 'uptown' section, replete with a Ramada Inn.  A hot day, but bearable.

The 'terror museum' is actually just the former secret police headquarters for the city, left pretty much as it was when the regime was chased out in 1991.  Old Soviet tanks in front of the place, rotting barbed wire on the walls.  Inside were holding cells and a couple of torture rooms.  Overall, however, I was struck with the how mundane the bare concrete rooms inside the bare concrete buildings were.  Just outside the walls, the regular world would have been going on even as the secret police were trying to extract their confessions.

(By the way, out guide pointed out that, if you didn't crack during the torturing, they would let you go.  But if you did confess, even if actually innocent, you would then be shot.)

What was most affecting, however, was a video of the events of 1991.  I had forgotten, but what had caused the US and UN to institute the No Fly Zone that freed the Kurds was the fact that, after the Gulf War, millions upon millions of Kurds had just up and fled into the mountains, preferring an icy death of starvation to living under Saddam.  Like I said, very affecting.

Of course, you can only see so many terror museums before you start to get hungry.  And we were very fortunate to have seen a big fancy Pizza Plus restaurant just a few blocks away.  We headed there now, and had a most delicious huge vegetarian pizza.  Those street felafels hadn't done my intestines any favors, so real food was a precious find.  Moreover, I noticed that that Pizza Plus had fancy printed tissue boxes, and thus inferred that this must be an Iraq-wide chain. 

So that, even if I hadn't had a chance to taste the fear of Baghdad, I could at least taste its pizza.

Now we continued our pretty much forlorn search for souvenirs of Iraq.  First, since they probably get about two thousand tourists a year, they don't exactly have souvenir stores.  Second, the Kurds don't like to admit that they are part of Iraq, so what trinkets we did find were Kurdistan ones.  Still, the search continued off and on into the evening.

Next morning Maria was up and gone for the bus into Iran.  Hopefully she won't get eaten by any ayatollahs.  I had Wednesday all for to sit around and do nothing.  Part of the Nakhchivan Void that had been created.  But my poor old aching body wasn't objecting to the down time one bit.

More than enough time to scroll through hundreds of Arabic TV channels.  Did you know that there is MTV Arabia?  And that Saudi soap operas show women in real clothes?  And how the hell did an Ethiopian music video channel get up there?  And although I couldn't understand any of it, it was still cool to see the Baghdad Nightly News.  Same set, same blow dried presenters.

Stroll over for pizza and salad.  Stroll back.  Hang out in the room, writing and reading.  Roll into Thursday.  The nice Syrian refugee kid at the front desk let me hang out in my room until 3 pm.

Then time for one last walk around Suly to reflect on the last few days.  There's probably not much relationship with the vibe here and the one down below.  Kurdistan has been effectively independent since 1991.  As in Turkey, the men look rather hard and tough, but are surprisingly low key anpolite.  The women display all levels of covering, but no one looks askance at even the most westernized.

And as I took my taxi out towards the airport, and got away from the older downtown, I could see very clearly had quickly this area was becoming actually prosperous.  Trying to beat the traffic using back streets, I saw plenty of pretty nice houses.  Buildings were a'building all over the place, many of them even classy.  Considering that in 1990 this was Saddam's most backward area, it's all pretty impressive.

This is one area in the world where I don't mind enhanced security.  But, while thorough, the process at the airport was exceedingly sane and civilized.  Nothing like the police state paranoia that they have in Israel.

I sat there for a couple of hours in the tiny international airport waiting for the flight to Dubai.  Everything was exceedingly normal. Perhaps if HW had gone all the way to Baghdad in '91, then divided it into three autonomous parts, given Baghdad to the Sunnis and paid off the Sunni tribes, the whole country would be positive and peaceful now.

Perfect hindsight, sure.  But you got any other intractable problems you want me to solve?



At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

" real food was a precious find".

You call local pizza 'real food' ? lol.

I am about to head out for my Ivy League networking event in which we will have some nice food and amenities :) Reading this, I am thrilled by your adventures - but at the same time I'm sort of glad that I don't have to do such extreme adventuring nowadays :)

Enjoy the rest of your planetary gallivanting :)


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